Hideki Irabu, Twenty Years Later

(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)

A bit over twenty years ago, the San Diego Padres purchased the contract of Hideki Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines. There was no bidding process, nor was any other team able to offer Irabu a contract – the Padres were the early bird to the worm, and they stood to reap the rewards. This is noteworthy in and of itself, as it played a tremendous role in the creation and implementation of the posting system that we all know and loathe (though, to be fair, the system that brought Masahiro Tanaka over was an improvement, even if subsequent tweaks will prevent us from seeing Shohei Otani for a couple more years). But I digress.

The demand for Irabu was understandable. In addition to throwing the hardest recorded fastball in the history of the NPB (98 or 99 MPH, depending on the account), he was probably the league’s best pitcher from 1994 through 1996. Some called him the Japanese Nolan Ryan, while Bobby Valentine – a former manager – compared him to Roger Clemens (the 6’4″, 240 pound frame helped), and several scouts believed he would be better than Hideo Nomo. That last bit may not mean much nowadays, but it came on the heels of Nomo’s first two MLB seasons, which included a Rookie of the Year award, two Top-4 Cy Young finishes, over 10 K/9, a 133 ERA+, and 9-plus WAR (per both B-R and FanGraphs).

Unfortunately for the Padres (or fortunately, depending on how you want to weigh hindsight), Irabu refused to pitch in San Diego. He was a lifelong Yankees fan, after all, and that was the only organization that he would play for. And George Steinbrenner was more than happy to oblige, and a deal was struck. The Yankees sent top prospect Ruben Rivera (rated 9th overall by Baseball America a couple of months prior), Rafael Medina (64th on the same list), and $3 MM to the Padres, in exchange for Irabu, Homer Bush, and Gordie Amerson. They subsequently signed him to a four-year, $12.8 MM deal, with a team option for a fifth.

Fans, players, and talking heads the world over had strong opinions about the manner in which Irabu forced his way to the Yankees. A Tokyo-based newspaper was headlined “ARE YOU BLINDED BY MONEY?” on the heels of the deal, which is seemingly a timeless question for athletes. And both Andy Pettitte and Kenny Rogers questioned the signing, with the former griping about their comparative wages (Pettitte made around $600,000 in 1997). There was excitement, to be sure, but the skepticism and anger was palpable.

Irabu made his stateside debut shortly thereafter, making six warm-up starts in the minors. He dominated the competition, allowing a 2.32 ERA in 31 IP, and posting a ridiculous 34 strikeouts against just 1 walk. His fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range, and his forkball had vicious bite in the upper-80s, low-90s. More than satisfied with his stuff and performance, the Yankees called him up to face the Tigers at home on July 10, 1997.

(Chuck Solomon/SI)
(Chuck Solomon/SI)

I was there that evening, as a part of a sell-out crowd (as compared to the average weekday audience of around 28,000), and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the stadium more excited for the first pitch of a relatively inconsequential game. That level of excitement was steady throughout the evening, with cheers at every strike and veritable roars with every punch out. When Joe Torre pulled Irabu in the top of the 7th the crowd reacted as though he had thrown a perfect game, demanding a curtain call. All told, he finished that night with 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 BB, and 9 K. It was a fine debut, and it seemed as though a legend was being born.

The brakes were pumped in short order, though, as Irabu was awful over his next seven starts, earning a demotion to the minors and a return engagement in the bullpen. In the eleven appearances between his first and last starts of the season, batters hit .343/.395/.663 against Irabu, which led to an 8.42 ERA in 41.2 IP. The first uses of ‘I-Rob-U’ were born during this stretch, as fans turned on him rather quickly. Some faint glimmer hope was found in his final start of the season, against those same Tigers, when he went 5 IP, allowing just 2 hits, 1 run, and no walks, while striking out 6. The final line was ugly – a 7.09 ERA and -0.9 bWAR in 53.1 IP – but there were flashes of brilliance sprinkled in.

That glimmer of hope expanded tenfold in the first few months of the 1998 season. Irabu allowed 1 run or less in six of his first seven starts, and boasted a 1.13 ERA in 47.2 IP when Memorial Day rolled around. When the first half came to a close, he was sitting on the following line: 86.2 IP, 67 H, 40 BB, 65 K, 2.91 ERA. The strikeouts and walks weren’t terribly strong, but we were at the tail end of the dark days of baseball analytics, and that ERA was quite good in the run environment of 1998. The wheels fell off in the second half, to the tune of a 5.21 ERA in 86.1 IP, and Irabu didn’t factor into the 1998 playoffs.

Overall, 1998 wasn’t a terrible year for Irabu. Disappointing? Sure. But 173 IP of 109 ERA+ ball isn’t too shabby, and he actually bested Pettitte in H/9, K/9, ERA+, and bWAR. The sequencing of it all kept him off of the playoff roster (as it should have, as he was all but unpitchable down the stretch) – but there were still some signs that he could be a competent back of the rotation starter. And, given his contract, he’d get the chance to be just that.

Instead, Irabu was viewed as a dead man walking in 1999, his season tarnished by Steinbrenner referring to him as a “fat pussy toad”  after he failed to cover first in a Spring Training game. (Pussy as in full of pus.) He was sent to the bullpen to open the season, spending the entirety of April as a mop-up reliever, before rejoining the rotation in May. The writing was on the wall at that point, it seemed, and Irabu did little to help his cause. His strikeout and walk rates improved markedly over his 1998 season, and he looked quite good in June (3.33 ERA in 24.1 IP) and July (2.64 ERA and 4.1 K/BB in 44.1 IP) – but that represented the high point to an otherwise dreadful season, including two-plus awful months to close the season (6.63 ERA between August and October).

The Yankees officially gave up on Irabu thereafter, and he was dealt to the Expos for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker in the 1999-2000 off-season. He spent three more years in the majors (two in Montreal, one in Texas), battling injuries, ineffectiveness, and demotions to the minors, throwing his last big league pitch on July 12, 2002 … he allowed a walk-off single to Jacque Jones in  a 4-3 loss to the Twins.

Irabu finished his career with 514 IP across 126 appearances (80 starts), posting a 5.15 ERA (4.97 FIP) along the way. His 18.1% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate were both better than average for their time, but his propensity for the long ball (1.59 HR/9 for his career) and gradually increasing hittability felled him. Luckily for the Yankees, their return for Irabu was much better than what they gave up back in 1997 – and he didn’t stop them from winning back-to-back World Series championships.

He returned to the NPB in 2003 at 34-years-old, pitching for the Hanshin Tigers of the Central League (in a rotation with Kei Igawa, because of course). He finished fourth in the Central League with 164 strikeouts, with a league-average-ish 3.85 ERA. He attempted a return engagement in 2004, but injuries essentially ended his career.

Irabu’s post playing days were discussed quite a bit when he committed suicide in 2011, and they don’t bear repeating here. Despite his struggles with the Yankees, I remember him somewhat fondly. He started one of the most exciting games that I’ve ever attended (I was eleven at the time), and his forkball stands out as one of the first filthy breaking balls in my memory. His career was a disappointment, and much of it was a circus – but the talent was there, and he was fun to watch when he was right.

If you’d like to take a few moments to see what could have been, I recommend these two videos. The first is from 1994, when he was still pitching in the NPB:

And the other is from his MLB debut:

Thoughts following the first four Grapefruit League games

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first four Grapefruit Leagues games are in the books and the Yankees won three of them. They rallied to tie the game in the ninth inning in the one loss too. It’s good to have baseball back, isn’t it? Spring Training games are fun in their own way. Are you ready for some super small sample size reactions? Good. I have some thoughts.

1. Let’s get to the bottom of this Aaron Judge leg kick business, shall we? We know Judge and hitting coach Alan Cockrell worked on something with his lower half this offseason. What exactly? No idea. At one point it appeared he eliminated his leg kick, but nope, that’s not the case. My bad. Here is Judge last spring (left) and Judge this spring (right):

aaron-judge-2016-17-leg-kick

I wouldn’t say Judge’s leg kick is smaller this spring, but he is getting his foot down a little quicker. The GIFs are synced up at the moment he lifts his front foot, and you can see it touches down a tad earlier than last year. Last spring his foot kinda dangled out there for a second. This year it’s up and down, and he’s ready to hit. I have no idea whether this is what Judge and Cockrell worked on over the winter, but there’s his leg kick last year and his leg kick this year. They look about the same size — Judge isn’t picking his leg up any higher (or lower) — but this year his front foot gets down a tad bit sooner, ostensibly putting him in better position to hit. Intrigue!

2. Three quick observations about the kids. One, Gleyber Torres looks like a big leaguer. I don’t mean he’s ready to play in the big leagues right now, but the way he carries himself. He’s calm at the plate and in the field. Gleyber’s good and he knows it, though not in an arrogant way. It’s a quiet confidence. Two, Clint Frazier has been on everything. He’s gone 3-for-5 with a double and a triple, and even his two strikeouts were good at-bats with quality swings. It’s easy to see what Brian Cashman meant when he said Frazier has “legendary bat speed.” The kid gets the bat to the ball in a hurry. And three, Billy McKinney sure does have a pretty swing. I have no idea whether he’ll actually hit and be a productive player long-term, but his swing is a sweet. However his career plays out, McKinney will look good doing it. These first few games have been more fun than I expected as far as the prospects are concerned.

3. Each of the five fourth and fifth starter candidates have already appeared in games, and each has thrown two scoreless innings. And that means nothing to me right now. The first weekend of Grapefruit League games was never going to give someone an edge in this race. I was happy to see Luis Severino throw some nice changeups Sunday, though I’ve been doing this long enough to know a handful of changeups against minor leaguers (look at at the lineup Severino faced) in late-February don’t mean much of anything. The most encouraging thing I saw from the rotation candidates was probably Chad Green‘s velocity and overall health. His 2016 season ended early due to a sprained elbow ligament and strained flexor tendon, remember. That’s a scary combination of words. Green ran his fastball up to 94 mph in yesterday’s start and he was throwing free and easy. Hooray for that. The five rotation candidates got through their first appearances in one piece and that’s good. Once they get some more innings against MLB caliber hitters under their belts, those last two rotation spots will start to sort themselves out.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

4. The Jacoby Ellsbury criticism has definitely been ratcheted up a notch this spring. I guess that’s what happens when Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira aren’t here to kick around anymore. Both Cashman and Joe Girardi have been asked directly about Ellsbury’s disappointing performance as a Yankee, Ellsbury himself has fielded questions about it, and the YES booth was on him Sunday as well. “We believe there’s more in there, we’ve seen it. Our job is to get that out of him,” said Girardi to George King, which is about as harsh as you’ll hear him criticize a veteran player. Hopefully Ellsbury uses this as motivation and has a strong bounceback season. That would be cool. I still think it’s unlikely he’ll be moved down in the lineup when the season begins — maybe a few weeks into the season, but not Opening Day — but I’m starting to think there’s a chance it will happen. Not a big chance, but a chance. I’d say it’s 90/10 in favor of staying at the top of the lineup. Sound good?

5. I thought it was kinda interesting Brett Gardner played center field and Aaron Hicks played left field in the first Spring Training game last week. Girardi said last season he wanted to keep Gardner in left field and he did. Gardner started only two games in center field last year, both in September when Hicks was on the disabled list and Mason Williams was still in Triple-A. Ellsbury got those days off and Gardner was the only other center field option. In all likelihood this is nothing. The Yankees are giving Gardner some center field time in Spring Training just to keep him sharp out there in case he’s needed. But maybe they consider him a better center fielder than Hicks at this point. By and large Hicks was really good in the field last year, though he took some funky routes at times, and stuff like that tends to stick in your memory. Hicks has played three games this spring, all in corner spots. His center field usage the rest of the spring is a #thingtowatch.

Open Thread: February 27th Camp Notes

Grapefruit League championship here they come. The Yankees won for the third time in four spring games today, this time thanks to a ninth inning rally. Clint Frazier hustled a leadoff double, Kellin Deglan pulled a single to put men on the corners, then Thairo Estrada launched a three-run bomb. The Summer of Thairo is starting early, I see. He’s a personal favorite.

Greg Bird had a good and bad day. He pulled two doubles to right field (good!) and then got thrown out trying to advance to third on ground balls twice (bad!). “Those are bad reads, plain and simple. I’ll learn from it,” he said to Erik Boland afterward. Chad Green started and allowed a hit and a walk in two otherwise uneventful innings. Boland spoke to some scouts who had Green at 94 mph, which is encouraging after last year’s elbow injury. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here is everything else that happened in camp:

This is the open thread for the night. There is no replay of tonight’s game, as far as I can tell. MLB Network is showing a different game on tape delay later tonight. The Knicks and Devils are playing, and there’s a few college basketball games on as well. Talk about anything except religion and politics here.

TiqIQ: Yankees Tickets Now On Sale; Team Introduces Two New Plans for 2017 Season

A new season is approaching, and new ticket deals exist at Yankee Stadium in 2017.

Yankees tickets officially went on sale to the general public on Monday morning, giving fans first dibs at all 81 home games in the Bronx this year. The team has introduced two new ticketing plans for the 2017 season in the Pinstripe Pass and Grandstand seating options, designed to offer more affordable pricing (and perks) throughout the stadium this year.

The $15 Pinstripe Pass is available for all Yankees home games and is a general admission, standing-room-only ticket. The pass includes the choice of a 12 oz. domestic beer for fans that are 21 or older with a valid ID, a Pepsi product or a bottle of Poland Spring water. Fans who purchase a Pinstripe Pass can view the game from any non-assigned standing room area of Yankee Stadium. These locations include the newly-opened Masterpass Batter’s Eye Decks, AT&T Sports Lounge in left field and the SunRun Kids Clubhouse.

For those looking to save even more, the cheaper of the new plans is the Grandstand level option. The Yankees will offer $10 tickets in select Grandstand (400 level) locations for every home game this season. Quantity will vary by game, however, so plan accordingly for premium matchups.

The Pinstripe Pass and Grandstand seating options join the growing list of Yankees ticket options for 2017. The Mastercard $5 game returns this season, giving fans the opportunity to purchase tickets in the Terrace, Grandstand or Bleachers when using their Mastercard at checkout. Mastercard will also sponsor several half-price games throughout the season. Fans using this option can purchase tickets for 50 percent off the advance ticket price using their Mastercard.

A slew of other ticket deals also exist through Ticketmaster. E-Saver, Military Personnel, Senior Citizen, Student and Youth game options are available at select games throughout the season. Weekly email ticket offers will be given to Yankees email subscribers through the E-Saver option. Active military members can present their military identification to receive one grandstand or bleacher-level seats to any Monday-Thursday home game.

Citizens 60 or older may receive discounted tickets at all home games while high school or college students can purchase half-price tickets at Wednesday home games. Fans 14 and under can take advantage of half-price tickets when accompanied by an adult at Saturday, Sunday and select weekday 1:05 p.m. home games.

The Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays in their home opener on April 10. They’ll face the Toronto Blue Jays in their final regular season matchup at Yankee Stadium on October 1.

Yankees pursued Mexican League righty Hector Velazquez

(AP)
(AP)

According to Evan Drellich, the Yankees pursued Mexican League right-hander Hector Velazquez before he signed with the Red Sox earlier this month. This wasn’t exactly the second coming of the Jose Contreras chase, though the two AL East financial superpowers were after the same Latin American pitcher. Boston purchased Velazquez’s contract from his Mexican League team and he is in camp as a non-roster player.

“After the Caribbean Series they told me that the Red Sox were interested,” said Velazquez to Drellich. “So I spoke to (their scouts) and they told me about their interest in me. And then soon after, Campeche, which is the team that I play for, told me that the Yankees were also interested. The way things in work in Mexico is, Campeche is the one who decides exactly who do you go to. They asked me at the end of the day who I wanted to go to, and I chose the Red Sox because they were the first ones to come to me and reach out.”

Velazquez, who turned 28 in November, had a 2.46 ERA with 120 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 131.1 innings in the Mexican League last season. His career numbers aren’t nearly as good — Velazquez has a 4.01 ERA and a 2.05 K/BB in 1,019.2 innings career innings, all in Mexico — but this is a “what have you done for me lately” game, and Velazquez was pretty great last summer. Here’s some video.

By no means is Velazquez a top prospect or anything like that. He’s a just turned 28-year-old right-hander who had a lot of success in a league roughly equivalent to Triple-A last season, and when players do what he did, teams notice. The Yankees made a run at Velazquez and the Red Sox beat them to it. C’est la vie.

More than anything, this is a reminder the Yankees leave basically no stone unturned when it comes to looking for pitching depth. They rolled the dice on a successful Mexican League right-hander nine years ago and were rewarded with 84 pretty excellent relief innings from Al Aceves in 2009. Perhaps Velazquez could have been have provided similar impact. Alas.

Dreaming about a potential Starlin Castro breakout season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first two years of the post-Robinson Cano era at second base were not pretty for the Yankees. Sitting through nearly 1,000 combined plate appearances of late-career Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew is not something I’d wish on any fan. Cano was the best second baseman in baseball at the time of his free agency, so by definition he was irreplaceable, though I don’t think many of us were prepared for that big a drop-off.

Last year the Yankees brought in Starlin Castro, a player in his mid-20s with some MLB success under his belt and ostensibly his best years ahead of him, to man second base. His first season in New York was okay. Not great, not awful. Just okay. Starlin did set a new career high with 21 home runs, though his overall .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) batting line was right in line with his .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) career average. Blah.

The Cubs traded Castro last year essentially because they were tired of waiting for him to break out. They were ready to win and better players were available to them both internally (Javier Baez) and through free agency (Ben Zobrist), so they did something that usually draws ire from fans: they sold low on a talented young homegrown player. Things worked out pretty well for Chicago last year. Now the Yankees are hoping to get more from Starlin.

What, exactly, would a breakout season by Castro look like? He doesn’t lack physical talent. That much is obvious. He did this yesterday, remember:

Castro is held back by extreme plate indiscipline — he’s walked in 3.8% of his plate appearances the last two years (3.2% if you remove intentional walks) — so pretty much any sort of breakout would involve laying off pitches out of the zone. Improved discipline truly may be the only thing Castro needs to break out.

Last summer Castro swung at 37.5% of the pitches he saw out of the strike zone, the 17th highest rate among the 146 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. That’s up from 33.9% in 2015 and 30.4% in 2014. Not a great trend there, Starlin! And yet, I come to offer you four reasons Castro could break out in 2017. You may have to squint your eyes a little.

1. No more adjustment period. Castro grew up with the Cubs. They signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 and he spent a decade in the organization. The Cubs were the only team Castro had known. Last year he came to New York and played in a new organization for the first time. New team, new coaches, new league, new city, new Spring Training site, the whole nine. That can be a lot to take in. This will be Castro’s second year in pinstripes and presumably he’ll be more comfortable this time around.

2. Castro is in what should be prime of his career. Starlin will turn 27 next month and that is the age when players are usually at their best. Once upon a time a player’s prime lasted from ages 27-31, or thereabouts. Nowadays it’s closer to 25-29. (Here are some aging curve studies.) Either way, 27-31 or 25-29, Castro is right smack in the middle of it. Age 27 is a pretty common age for a position player to have a career year. Every player is their own unique individual and there are exceptions to every rule. Generally speaking though, Starlin is at a good age for a baseball player. Big things tend to happen at 27.

3. Castro is making harder contact. The career high 21 home runs last season came with a steady increase in hard contact — an increase that started in the second half of 2015 — and a steady decrease in soft contact. Here are Starlin’s last two years:

starlin-castro-hard-and-soft-contactHit the ball hard and good things tend to happen, especially when it comes with fewer ground balls. Castro’s grounder rate dropped from a career high 54.1% to 49.1% last season. More hard hit balls in the air is a recipe for success. It’s not a coincidence Starlin set a new career high in home runs last year given his increase in hard contract and decrease in ground balls. Some more progress in both departments, especially in cutting down on ground balls, would equal even more power going forward.

4. Castro has done some good things before. As recently as 2014, Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) with 33 doubles and 14 home runs. We’re not necessarily asking Starlin to achieve new offensive heights, though that would be cool. Just get back to where he was three seasons ago. This isn’t like asking 37-year-old Matt Holliday to hit .340/.405/.607 (151 wRC+) like he did at age 26. Castro is a month away from his 27th birthday and that solid 2014 season is not so far in the rear-view mirror that hoping he can return to that level of production is unrealistic.

* * *

At his peak, a version of Castro with a little more plate discipline could probably hit somewhere close to .300/.340/.475. Maybe even a little higher with the batting average. I think the raw talent is there for him to do that. The Yankees owe Castro some decent money — $9M, $10M, and $11M in the next three seasons — and they have a lot of middle infield prospects on the way. If Starlin doesn’t break out in 2017, the team figures to intensify their efforts to trade him.

Spring Training Game Thread: Prospects on the Road

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This afternoon the Yankees are playing their second road game and fourth game overall of the Grapefruit League season. So far in their three games they’ve hit five home runs, second most this spring (the Phillies have six), and man, I am loving it. Long live dingers. We haven’t seen nearly enough of them the last four years. Hopefully the trend continues.

What to keep an eye on today? Chad Green, for starters. He’s coming off an elbow injury and the other four rotation candidates have all pitched already. They all threw well too. Green will look to do the same today. Greg Bird and Aaron Judge are batting third and fourth in the starting lineup, and, with any luck, we’ll get to see them do that for the next five or six years. (Gary Sanchez might have something to say about that.) Anyway, here is the Orioles lineup and here are the players the Yankees sent 60 miles south to Sarasota:

  1. LF Aaron Hicks
  2. C Austin Romine
  3. DH Greg Bird
  4. RF Aaron Judge
  5. 1B Rob Refsnyder
  6. 2B Ruben Tejada
  7. 3B Miguel Andujar
  8. CF Dustin Fowler
  9. SS Jorge Mateo
    RHP Chad Green

Available Pitchers: LHP Evan Rutckyj, LHP Joe Mantiply, RHP Gio Gallegos, RHP Kyle Haynes, and RHP Matt Marsh are all scheduled to pitch after Green. LHP Nestor Cortes, LHP Caleb Frare, RHP Jonathan Holder, RHP Yefrey Ramirez, and RHP Matt Wotherspoon also made the trip and are available. Haynes, Marsh, Cortes, Frare, and Wotherspoon are all up from minor league camp for the day.

Available Position Players: C Wilkin Castillo, 1B Kellin Deglan, 2B Thairo Estrada, SS Abi Avelino, 3B Cito Culver, LF Ji-Man Choi, CF Rashad Crawford, RF Clint Frazier, and DH Jorge Saez will be the second string off the bench. C Francisco Diaz, SS Tyler Wade, and OF Billy McKinney will be on the bench as well. Estrada, Avelino, Culver, and Crawford are all up from minor league camp.

It is bright and sunny in Sarasota today. Pretty much perfect Spring Training baseball weather. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. If you’re in the Orioles home market, you can watch the game on MASN. If not, you can watch live on MLB Network and MLB.tv. The MLB Network broadcast will be available in the Tri-State Area. You won’t be blacked out. Enjoy the game.